Michele Keith and David Atkinson moved into their five-bedroom home in Bolwarra four years ago. They saw the location as an opportunity to create natural corridors to live in harmony with native plants, animals and birds.
David came from Lovedale and Michele from East Maitland.
"We were combining households and finding a house that was big enough," Michele says.
"This one came on the market. I walked in and went 'I love this place'."
They thought it would be big enough for their family of six, and they saw potential with the land. They got to work, with the environment as motivation.
"Our woodland forest are just being devastated for housing development, particularly around Maitland," Michele says.
"Maitland seems to have a philosophy that a developer can put in a DA application, and the next thing you see it's a barren hill.
"Those trees are 30-plus years old and the hollows and things that are in there, they take hundreds of years to develop.
"What little forest we have left is just being wiped out."
Michele is a member of Hunter Bird Observers and Australian Native plant society.
"Once they're gone they're never coming back," she says of the wildlife.
When David and Michele moved in, they renovated the roof and bathrooms. They are now working on the kitchen.
COVID-19 helped them focus; they're usually busy people. Michele's a deputy principal at a Singleton school and David's an optometrist in Cessnock.
They loved some sustainable aspects of the house already.
For example, the house is designed as passive solar with north-facing glass and thermal density. It usually stays at an even temperature. They have a solid floor with black tiles. During the winter the grape vine around the house loses its leaves, and the sun heats up the floor and radiates the warmth back into the house.
They planted trees, which shade hotter parts of the house. The house came with a solar hot water system and they're looking into installing solar batteries.
Michele speaks passionately about the garden. Her father is Max Maddock, one of the founders of Hunter Wetlands Centre.
She grew up knowing that natives were important for animals to have habitat.
"Whatever garden we moved into, it was going to be natives," she says.
"Natives are designed to be here. When you plant them they adapt a lot better than exotics which require specific soils."
Not only are native gardens better for the environment, they reduce the water bill and are easier to keep alive during drought.
When they first moved in, the land had a few natives such as casuarinas and gumtrees, but also exotics which Michele started removing, particularly privet, cestrumnocturnum (which is poisonous to cattle), ivy and "aga-bloody-panthus."
When a neighbour bought nearby land more than 30 years it was cattle pasture. He let the native trees and forests regenerate it. Now Michele and David are doing the same.
"We're in the process of creating a small woodland for woodland birds and a safe passage for them to come over the back 10 acres of remnant bush," she says.
They're working to get rid of the invasives along the creek that feeds into the Hunter River.
Their front garden has edible plants such as tamarind (native to Africa) and the Australian finger lime. They have other species which are good bird food.
Their vegie patch is going wild behind the pool. Down beside the shed they have a garden of natives grasses for wrens and finches. Her son, Michael, has created an impressive cacti garden as well.
The family has three dogs: Michael's dog Dante and the two Dalmatians: Ella and Tilly. They keep her daughter's birds and have spiny leaf insects as pets.
Outside their house, there are yellow tailed black cockatoos, rainbow and musk lorikeets. Little lorikeets, fig birds, kookaburras, butcher birds, and "too many noisy miners".
They've already done a lot but they have much planned.
As they work to create a microclimate for native birds and animals, Michele and David can't wait to see the wildlife they'll have in four years.
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